With an entire unit to oversee, defensive coordinator Don Brown doesn’t have time to hold everyone’s hand as he tries to prepare Arizona for each week’s new opponent. And his players are glad he doesn’t, either.
“I like the way Coach Brown coaches, I like that hard coaching,” defensive tackle Trevon Mason said last week. “He don’t care where you are, he don’t care if you’re the star player, he’s gonna get on you, especially when you mess up. Everybody needs that, I feel like.”
Brown, in his first year with Arizona, has made massive improvements to a defense that has been in the bottom third of the Pac-12 in yards allowed per game every year since 2014. In 2019 and 2020 the Wildcats were dead-last in total defense and scoring defense.
Arizona is still last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 31.8 points per game, but that’s eight points better than a year ago and the yards allowed numbers are even more improved. The Wildcats are allowing 381.3 yards per game, fifth-best in the conference, compared to 473 in 2020.
For the 65-year-old Brown, who comes from the old school but still manages to connect with today’s players, his approach is simple: be honest and be direct.
“You critique the performance, not the performer,” Brown said Tuesday. “It’s direct, it’s pointed. And I think that’s a strength of mine, I’m pointed. If I think something needs to be said I’m going to say it straight forward.”
Linebacker Jerry Roberts says Brown is “locked in” and “intense” during games, going over every play from the previous drive with the defense when they come to the sideline. If something went wrong, he’s going to address it, but doesn’t single out individual mistake-makers.
“He critiques the performance as a whole,” Roberts said. “Say for instance, I go out there and give up a 50-yard touchdown. But he won’t just necessarily critique me, he’ll critique the entire defense that drive, like what’s the things that led up to that (play)? What’s the things we could have done better as a defense as a whole on that drive not just focus on individual.”
That’s not to say Brown doesn’t develop close relationships with his players. Those happen, just not during practices and games.
“When you’re out there and you’re practicing for two hours, you don’t have a time to go, ‘hey, come on over here and let’s have a hug,’” he said.
Brown used the spring and summer to determine how each of his guys is best coached and has honed in on that for the regular season. Of linebacker Anthony Pandy, who leads Arizona in tackles and had a pick-six against USC, he said he’s gotten so much better since the spring thanks to the relationship they’ve built.
“There were times in the spring I would have traded him in for two used footballs,” Brown said. “But that’s not the case (anymore). And it’s really in large picture due to the way he approaches the game. We have an honest relationship. I can promise you that. He wants it straight. And he wants the truth. The nice thing is, knowing I can be honest with the guy, you don’t have to candy coat it. He’s got a chance to take in what you’re telling him and bring it to the field, and make the necessary adjustments. His trajectory the last few weeks has been that way.”
As for defensive end Jalen Harris, who is having a breakout year: “Another guy that was willing to be coached. This guy is a bright guy, he’s been able to decipher the information, and he’s brought it to the field. Now a lot of guys can do it in drill work, but they can’t bring it to the field. This guy brings it to the field.”
Safety Jaxen Turner, who admits to having trust issues, said a personal talk he had with Brown before the season started has made a world of difference in his play.
“With a new staff you’re not going to believe everything they say at first out of the gate,” he said. “I’m all on board now, 100 percent in.”
Turner has twice been ejected for targeting, including early against USC. Rather than get on him for costing his team, Brown has just made sure Turner knows he’s playing the right way and that sometimes mistakes still happen.
“I don’t know what you do on that,” Brown said, saying targeting “might be the worst rule in college football. You coach tackling every day, we coach body position, head placement, all those things. I thought he was underneath him, but I’m not the official administering the rule. Did you look at that play and say he did it on purpose? It’s an absolute no, the answer is of course not. But to me, you just move on. I had a player a couple years ago (at Michigan, Khaleke Hudson) he had back to back games (with targeting). Then it went away. It’s a tough, tough deal.”